Trevor Cherry recalls one of the highlights of his career – a European Cup semi-final clash against Barcelona at Camp Nou in 1975 – with YEP sports writer Leon Wobschall.
ON TUESDAY night, Chelsea are aiming to do what their great rivals Leeds United did 37 years ago – book their place in Europe’s blue-riband club game at one of the true cathedrals of world football – the Camp Nou.
Memories are likely to flood back for several of the Whites’ golden generation from the Super Leeds era when they switch on the TV and see a fervent crowd bedecked in blue and red and waving Catalan flags. And for seventies class act Trevor Cherry, it’s fair to say his feelings will be a touch poignant.
The stylish defender suffered disappointment after being left out of the first leg of the old European Cup semi-final against Rinus Michels’ Barcelona at Elland Road on April 9, 1975 when 50,000 saw United take over a 2-1 lead to Catalonia, courtesy of a late Allan Clarke goal.
But the former Huddersfield Town man got the nod in the second leg a fortnight later and went on to enjoy the game of his life in marking the Lionel Messi of his day, in the shape of Dutch midfield maestro Johann Cruyff, out of the game as United held their nerve to draw 1-1 and become the first English team to reach the European Cup final since Manchester United seven years earlier.
Unfortunately – and somewhat controversially at the time – it wasn’t enough to yield a starting spot for Cherry, now 64 and living in his native Huddersfield, in the final against holders Bayern Munich on an oft-lamented night at the Parc de Princes the following month.
But that evening at the Camp Nou in front of an incredible attendance of 110,000 – the only bigger crowd at a match involving United was a British-record 135,826 which saw their European Cup semi-final second leg with Glasgow Celtic five years earlier – Cherry and his jubilant team-mates were on top of the world after clinching a 3-2 aggregate win.
A night of tension and drama saw United enjoy the dream start when Joe Jordan flicked on David Stewart’s huge clearance with Peter Lorimer blasting a trademark strike past Salvador Sadurni for his 13th goal in Europe, to silence the partisan crowd.
As expected, Barca, who qualified for the European Cup after winning La Liga for the first time in 14 years the previous season, proceeded to throw everything but the kitchen sink at Leeds. But the visitors, with Cherry taking care of three times European Footballer of the Year Cruyff, Frank Gray doing a good job marking dangerman Carles Rexach and the likes of Gordon McQueen and Stewart also imperious, held out until Manuel Clares headed home on 69 minutes to set up a grandstand last 20 minutes.
Worse was to come when McQueen was famously red-carded after striking Clares soon after his goal but, heroically, Jimmy Armfield’s United dug deep and refused to be breached again with Cruyff, Johan Neeskens and Co repelled on possibly the greatest night in the club’s history.
Recalling that sultry Spanish evening and having to mark £922,000 then-world record signing Cruyff, Cherry said: “I don’t think there was anybody bigger in world football at the time than Cruyff. Although I’ve got to say, I don’t think we saw him at his best that night, fortunately! It was one of those nights you’d dream you would have against him. A great player, that goes without saying, but one or two of his things didn’t come off and we marked him tight.
“You never really just focus on one player. But that night, everybody knew he was the one you closed down and tackled harder than anyone. I was told to ‘look after him’. Not to kick him, but just mark him tight and stop him playing and doing his tricks. You have good and bad nights and it was one of the better ones for me. He wasn’t totally on song and I think we upset him with our play.”
He added: “Barcelona were a great team, no doubt about that and also had the likes of Neeskens. But we had a real work ethic and weren’t just a pushover and I think that might have shocked them a little bit.
“I think at that time we were that confident as a team that we weren’t really bothered about playing whoever, without being disrespectful to the other teams. We drew Barcelona and just thought ‘you have to play the best ones sometimes’.
“We weren’t thinking ‘It’s Barcelona, that’s us finished’. Obviously, they are a massive club, but we were confident, without being big-headed.
“We took the lead and I think that helped being an away goal and we put pressure on them because I think they were expecting to beat us easily in the second leg. That goal gave us confidence and kept us going, especially when they were attacking a lot. We defended really well.
“We did have to dig in a bit after Gordon was sent off though. Gordon was a great player and a good lad to play with, but he just had one of his moments and saw the red mist and that was it. The last 20 minutes was backs-to-the-wall stuff at times and we just put an extra shift in. David Stewart, who wasn’t high-profile, but a good keeper, did fantastically well and we battled to the draw.
“But the thing was we were a side who could keep the ball and not give it away and I think that helped. You watch teams now and they give it away and they are bound to concede against the best, because they are shattered.
“Playing in the Nou Camp was certainly a bit special, especially to get a result as well. I didn’t know the crowd was 110,000, but I knew it was a lot! I played in an unbelievable atmosphere in Argentina once (Cherry was sent off in an international at the Bombonera, home of Boca Juniors in 1977) and that was a bit more hostile, but the Nou Camp was as good as it gets, along with playing in Brazil for England.”
After his Spanish highs, Cherry saw the flip side of the coin a little over a month later on May 28 in Paris when he was an unused sub in an infamous 2-0 defeat to Bayern that will forever be associated with unsavoury crowd scenes and a despicable refereeing performance from a Frenchman called Kitabdjian.
It proved a massive low for United and Cherry felt the pain more acutely than most after being denied – unjustly in his eyes – an all-too-rare chance to play in a European Cup final, which hardly come along like London buses.
Cherry, who was then in his prime at 27, said: “It was disappointing to miss the first game of the semi-final but, to be honest, the biggest one by far was to miss the final.
“It’s a long time ago, but I still don’t understand it. It still rankles a bit. I played in the semi and then not the final. Cup finals that big don’t come around that often, do they?
“I don’t think it was Jimmy really, but his advisors. He had Syd Owen advising him and he wanted to play the old team because they had been together for so long.
“I could understand that to some extent, but good managers pick the best teams.
“Unfortunately for me, there was a lot of politics at the time and a lot of the backroom staff felt Jimmy should play the old team put together by the ‘boss’ (Don Revie).
“It was my biggest disappointment at Leeds United. I think it would have been a bit better if someone had put their arm around me and said ‘Well, this is the best team and has the best chance of winning’. But I think a lot of people knew it wasn’t, to be honest.
“Jimmy told me the day before the game. Although with Jimmy, he wasn’t the type of guy you could fall out with really. He was a nice bloke. But it was a big blow for me after not doing anything wrong.
“It proved a bad night for the club. With refereeing decisions, you wonder what goes on sometimes and it was the same then. But, having said that, it was a shame we couldn’t get in the final by winning the league say two years before as the team then (in 1974-75) was coming towards the end and not at its peak.”
United may have copped defeat that night, but they were still undeniably a household name across Europe – and a force to be reckoned with.
Yet while the likes of Barca and Bayern have kept at the forefront of continental football since the mid-seventies, United have endured many trials and tribulations since, much to Cherry’s regret.
He said: “Today, you watch the likes of Barcelona, AC Milan and Bayern Munich and they are still strong. And in my opinion, Leeds should still be up there with them. But they have had a lot of mismanagement over the years, haven’t they.”